“Shedding Tears”

I recently came across Susan Guber’s column below on NY Times. I’ve read a couple of her other “Living with Cancer” columns and didn’t related, but this one definitely hit it home with me:
At times, I was so encased in the stoicism needed to endure cancer treatments that I could not feel much of anything unless someone else felt sorry for me.

Several years ago, debilitating infections threatened my life. Depleted by chemotherapy and a series of drains inserted into my body by interventional radiologists, I could barely creep from the hospital parking garage to post-surgical appointments. During the ordeal, I managed to put one foot in front of the other, but only by shutting down my emotions.

On one trip, when it turned out I had to be hospitalized, a nurse practitioner patted my arm. “You’ve really been through it,” she said. Summoned by her words of commiseration, tears coursed down my cheeks. Curiously, they were a relief. I needed her sympathy to experience my own sadness.

The oddity of my emotional dependency reminds me of the ending of a novella I have often taught: Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” After Ivan finally stops denying a mortal illness, he becomes so absorbed by his physical degeneration and pain that he feels encased inside a black bag.

When his son arrives at his deathbed and begins to cry, Ivan falls through the bottom of the black sack, catching “sight of the light.” A compassionate witness — another suffering his suffering — delivers Ivan from confinement. The dying man perceives the anguish of his survivor and this interpersonal witnessing — the son grieving for his father, the father for his son — ruptures pain’s carapace.


Although cancer patients are repeatedly enjoined to gird their loins and fight the disease or to invest in the powers of now or in positive thinking, many realize that welling up can be cathartic. Quite a few cancer memoirists describe staging a pity party: a private event at which they listen to the music or look at the pictures or read the poems that will lead them to cry over their losses. Such scenarios should not be dismissed as excuses for self-indulgence; sometimes we need to serve as our own sympathetic companions.

Weeping over cancer can provide an intermission from fighting it or, for that matter, raging at or fearing the disease. Call it wallowing, but I find myself tapping into sadness periodically, as if a deep reservoir of sorrow lies just below the seemingly calm surface of my existence.

This gulf of grief has everything to do with what my friend Andrew H. Miller calls the “unled lives” or “the counter-factual histories” that disease generates. Cancer makes me ask: How would my life have evolved if I hadn’t gotten the disease? Worse, it makes me worry: Why didn’t I or my doctor detect it earlier and wouldn’t I be better off if we had? And shouldn’t I have taken the advice of my gynecologist 20 years ago about having a hysterectomy?

The haunting person I might have become — the life I might have led — breeds regret until I wipe my eyes, turn off the record player and remind myself that I easily could have died several years ago during all those infections.


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